This felt like that random game in December that, one way or the other, becomes memorable in April.
The Charlotte Hornets were disappointed in how they performed against the Golden State Warriors, particularly in the haphazard way they rebounded. They had a chance to make amends Saturday against the Chicago Bulls, the team entering this game with the best win percentage in the Eastern Conference.
The Hornets match up well this season with the Bulls. They won the first matchup in Charlotte by 25 points and hung tough in a previous five-point loss in Chicago.
Saturday they closed, which becomes a crucial quality for a team aspiring to make the playoffs. Nic Batum hit huge shots, Kemba Walker swished a 20-foot pull-up and Marvin Williams grabbed two big rebounds.
Hornets 102, Bulls 96.
The Hornets are a respectable 11-8. I asked coach Steve Clifford if this was their best closing experience of the season. Clifford said the only finish that would rival this one was beating the Mavericks by 14 in Dallas.
The Bulls are talented, deep and experienced. To be up 2-1 in the season series felt like the Hornets accomplished something. But there’s still work to do before the Hornets can finish as one of the top eight teams in the East.
"There’s not a lot of difference between eight of us (in the East) for five (playoff) spots," Clifford said. "The teams that are going to make it are the ones that keep getting better. Nobody is playing near what they have to now to be one of those teams.
"The team we’re playing Monday (Detroit), the team we’re playing Wednesday (Miami), the team we’re playing Saturday (Boston) - there’s not a lot of difference between any of us."
Clifford had a sense at morning shootaround that his players had an edge about them. He had pointedly critiqued their approach against Warriors, saying this team can’t pickandchoose what nights to be physical.
"It’s the approach. When I got on the bus this morning I didn’t know if we were going to win, but I knew we were going to play well," Clifford said. "Just the way they were: detailed and intense. Most of the games you will play the game you prepare to play."
Some thoughts on what came to pass Saturday:
Cody Zeller was thrust into the starting rotation, filling in for center Al Jefferson. I thought this was as well as he’s played all season. He finished with a season-high 17 points plus eight rebounds. And after picking up a fourth foul in the third quarter, he managed to guard Bulls star Pau Gasol aggressively without fouling out.
Batum taking command
Nic Batum has played All-Star quality ball for most of the past three weeks. He was excellent again Saturday with 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. He made four of his six 3-point attempts on a night when, in general, the Hornets were bad from the arc (4-of-15 in the second half).
Clifford asks a lot of Batum at both ends of the court. Saturday was a fine example of Batum’s versatility.
Clifford says you never really know a player until you coach him. What he’s learned about Batum is, he might not appear outwardly fiery, but Batum an extremely competitive player.
The Hornets are taking a hit right now, playing without both Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (likely out for the season following shoulder surgery).
Saturday demonstrated they can only absorb those losses collectively: a little more from Williams, some steady minutes from Spencer Hawes and a smattering of Tyler Hansbrough.
They can tough this thing out so long as the ensemble approach keeps working.